A decade ago, former Illinois Congressman Lane Evans introduced local Democrats to a young state senator at the Cherry Street Restaurant in downtown Galesburg, Ill. The budding politician was at the time mounting a long-shot candidacy for the U.S. Senate.
In 2003, that state senator, Barack Obama, spoke about the impending closure of the Maytag factory and the pain it would inflict on the 1,600 workers who would lose their jobs.
Over the course of the past decade, as his presence on the national stage grew, Obama returned to the small rural town of 32,000 over and over again, meeting with union leaders and displaced workers and laying out his economic vision. In 2004, he mentioned Galesburg in his break-out address at the Democratic National Convention.
"I say to you tonight: We have more work to do," Obama said. "More to do for the workers in Galesburg, Illinois, who are losing their union jobs at the Maytag plant that's moving to Mexico, and now are having to compete with their children for jobs that pay seven bucks an hour.”
President Obama returns to Galesburg yet again Wednesday, this time as the nation's chief executive trying to breathe life into an economic agenda that has been persistently thwarted as he has overseen a sluggish recovery that has left 11.8 million Americans unemployed, according to the latest jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The Obama administration and lawmakers have almost exclusively addressed national economic policy through the bruising budget fights that have plagued Washington over the past three years. This time is no different: the President embarks on a campaign-style economic tour that will take him through Galesburg as well as Warrensburg, Mo., and Jacksonville, Fla., in order to set the stage for the next round of budget wrangling and debt ceiling negotiations with congressional Republicans this fall.
The economic conditions in each of the cities gives a glimpse at how the country is faring as a whole, almost five years after the economy cratered during the financial collapse.
In Galesburg, the unemployment rate stands at a stubborn 7.7 percent as of April, slightly higher than the national average but a far cry from the record 12.1 percent unemployment the city experienced in January 2010.
The recession struck Galesburg before the rest of the country and the town's rebound, too, has been a tougher, slower road.
The Maytag factory closure still looms large in Galesburg. Those jobs have not come back.
“It was a huge hit,” said Steven Brody, president of the Chamber of Commerce, adding that the population dropped in Galesburg after the closure, with people moving away to look for jobs. "There are people who are still holding out for another big manufacturer to come, and there's certainly the space for it, if an auto assembly plant wants to come or if a big factory would like to come. There is a workforce available and ready. In the meantime, though, we still have to focus on the small businesses."
City officials in Galesburg now focus on small victories — luring a small company here, adding a few extra manufacturing jobs there, retraining displaced blue-collar workers, and helping small businesses explore new markets abroad. A grant from the federal government helped them beef up their economic development efforts, but for the most part, Galesburg is charting its own economic path forward.
“What I concentrate on is what we can take control of,” said Gary Camarano, global strategies director for the city's economic development department. "Is it coming fast enough? If you’re unemployed, it’s never fast enough. We’re doing what we can.”
Obama will be in more hostile territory when he goes to Warrensburg later Wednesday afternoon. Johnson County, where the city is located, gave Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney 54 percent of their vote. Unemployment in the country hit a peak of 9.7 percent in summer 2009, but has since come down to 6.2 percent, more than a full percentage point lower than the national average, thanks to the presence of both Whiteman Air Force Base and the University of Central Missouri.
But Dan Houx, who owns a homebuilding company in the city and is president of the local Chamber of Commerce, is worried. The deep cuts to defense and discretionary spending — known as sequestration — that went into effect earlier this year when Congress failed to reach a deficit compromise may have faded to the background in Washington, but the cutbacks are being deeply felt in Warrensburg. Many civilians who work at Whiteman or in related industries have been furloughed, which in turn has had a ripple effect.
“We’re grateful that we have the air force base, but the sequester has really hurt us, which has hurt our small businesses and local restaurants and things like that,” Houx said. “I’m personally in homebuilding and without people getting paid, I don’t sell homes, and the building of a home has a huge economic impact.”
Houx said he’s not holding out much hope for federal help.
“People that I know think it’s a broken system,” he said. “They are fighting over the minor details and not looking at the big picture.”
“We try to do things as much as we can with our abilities,” added Warrensburg city manager Paula Hertzwig-Hopkins. “We’re affected so much by state policies and the types of incentives and the types of efforts that we have in our community to encourage economic development.”
Obama’s rounds out his tour in Jacksonville, where there seem to be signs of economic life. The unemployment rate is 6.7 percent, but city officials say the local economy is on the mend, on the strength of a strong finance, health care and logistics sector. Jacksonville Port Authority, where Obama is speaking, also hopes to make a personal appeal about upgrading the port’s infrastructure — namely a construction project that would make the currents in the port less hazardous for ocean-crossing ships.
“You know the community has been resilient but clearly we’ve been walking through the valley over the last several years,” said Daniel Davis, president of the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce. “We do feel optimistic that the future is brighter.”